- I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org). As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia! Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton. I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times. I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me? My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored. Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
"My two favorite songwriting bands [in Syracuse] were The Poptarts and The Ohms. For sheer, sheer pop songs, they were great."
--Singer-songwriter Gary Frenay of The Flashcubes
One of my favorite Syracuse bands in the late '70s was The Poptarts, an all-female quintet of pop-rockin' pretties who worshiped at the altar of '60s AM radio. The Poptarts combined the influences of the original girl-group sound with British Invasion rock 'n' roll (and American retaliation), from Little Peggy March to The Beatles to The Turtles. They performed a few covers, but their impressive array of original tunes was what made them unforgettable. They should have been huge; instead, they broke up without even releasing a single song. When The Go-Go's later topped the pop charts with an approach that was strikingly similar to what The Poptarts had done years before, those of us who'd loved the 'Tarts could only kick ourselves, and curse that lost opportunity.
In the '90s, when Poptarts lead singer Gael McGear compiled a cassette release of her old group's unreleased demos, I reviewed that tape for the Syracuse New Times, and that review is reproduced below. My only latter-day comment is that I was a bit too harsh on Bill Murphy's Poptarts productions, which were glossier than I would have preferred, but still much better than this review would have you believe. Critics. Just can't trust 'em.
An unofficial Poptarts CD anthology, Fresh...Out Of The Toaster!, was released subsequently. The Poptarts deserve much wider notoriety,
This all-female, mini-skirt-clad five-piece played in Central New York circa 1979-'80, setting out to be a distaff version of The Beatles and The Raspberries. They wound up a thoroughly wonderful prototype for The Go-Go's, who would employ many of the elements of The Poptarts' battle plan in their successful conquest of the Top 40 charts -- while The Poptarts themselves, of course, languished in undeserved obscurity.
Fresh Out of the Toaster, a homemade cassette available only via mail order, marks The Poptarts' legacy by preserving the group's unfinished demos and works-in-progress, offering the world at large a tantalizing glimpse at what it missed.
And the world missed quite a bit. The admittedly cute quintet was dismissed by some for their limited, nascent musical prowess and for the fact they were mere girls presuming to compete in the macho rock arena. So The Poptarts--guitarist-singer Meegan Voss (a.k.a. Debbie Redmond), singer-guitarist Gael McGear (Gael Sweeney), guitarist Cathy Kensington (Cathy Van Patten), bassist Margie Shears (Margie Fine) and drummer Susan Mersey (Susan Jaffe)--dismissed their own detractors in turn, embodying an accomplished DIY spirit and singing that it's easy. Haven't you ever had a pop dream of your own? Hey-hey, we're The Poptarts.
While its rough-hewn production prevents Fresh Out of the Toaster from achieving pop perfection, its 30 (!) tracks nonetheless reveal a young group that should have gone to the toppermost of the poppermost. Production values notwithstanding, many of the songs are flat-out terrific: "Jealousy" and "I Won't Let You Me Go" are the equal of any pop songs this side of The Hollies, while "Words," "August Is a Wicked Month," "Glad She's Gone," "Pop Dream," "I'm Gonna Get You," "It's Easy," and even the "98.6" rip "Sunday Afternoon" are nearly as good. One can only dream of how awesome they'd sound if they existed in a properly finished form.
Paradoxically and maddeningly, the only five Poptarts tracks that did make it to a final mastered version were woefully overproduced by Bill Murphy. He buried The Poptarts' natural effervescence under an inappropriate veneer of perky rhythms and horrid swirling synths, although the studio mess led to a memorable quote: Guitarist Cathy Kensington complaining, "Murphy cut our balls off, and we didn't even have any!"
Small matter. Although unfinished and ultimately frustrating in its tale of pop dreams unfulfilled, Fresh Out of the Toaster is nothing short of essential listening for pop enthusiasts and students of Syracuse's late-Seventies new wave scene. There is some discussion of a revamped CD release, and even tentative talk of a Poptarts reunion show. Both of these potential developments should be eagerly encouraged. For now, though, pop fans owe it to themselves to grab the cassette for a fascinating hint of what might have been.